Eminentoes

Whatever Happened to Sam Tanenhaus?

The author of a conservative “autopsy” is mysteriously silent.

By From the September 2012 issue

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HAS ANYONE HEARD from Sam Tanenhaus lately? Many weeks have elapsed since his byline has appeared in print, no one can remember the last time Tanenhaus appeared on TV, and certainly his friends must be deeply worried about him by now. Has Tanenhaus succumbed to chronic depression? Has he gone off on a binge in Las Vegas? Has he met with foul play? The thought of filing a missing person’s report has crossed my mind.

Readers may not remember the name Sam Tanenhaus, and may need to be reminded that three years ago the editor of the New York Times book review section was almost ubiquitous as a political commentator. In February 2009, a few weeks after President Obama was inaugurated, the New Republic published a cover story by Tanenhaus entitled, “Conservatism Is Dead: An intellectual autopsy of the movement.” The article was perhaps as remarkable for its length—nearly 6,700 words—as for its argument. According to Tanenhaus, what we had become accustomed to think of as conservatism is not actually conservative at all. The beliefs that animated the American conservative movement from its post-World War II origins to the triumph of Ronald Reagan’s presidency had somehow been replaced by a false consciousness, and the failure of this ersatz imitation produced the fatality to which Tanenhaus presumed to apply his forensic skill, thus: “After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive ‘culture war’ waged against liberal ‘elites.’”

Any disagreement with the conclusions of this autopsy was brushed aside with a few sentences about conservative leaders who had not “absorbed the full implications of their defeat” and who “offered little apart from self-justifications mixed with harsh appraisals of the Bush years.” This was unacceptable, said Tanenhaus: “What conservatives have yet to do is confront the large but inescapable truth that movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead.” From there, he waded into the bogs of antiquity, in that misty dawn of conservatism’s emergence from the fever swamps of reaction.Tanenhaus went all the way back to Edmund Burke and then carried readers forward through more recent history to tell a narrative that, strange to say, located the point at which the movement went wrong in its unquestionable victories: the Reagan presidency and the subsequent capture of Congress in 1994. Conservatism was only respectable, it seemed, when it was powerless. Reagan’s success was a triumph of “revanchism” over “realism,” Tanenhaus asserted, while he likened Newt Gingrich—who led the GOP to its first congressional majority in 40 years—to French revolutionary Georges Jacques Danton. “The right, which for so long had deplored the politics of ‘class warfare,’ had become the most adept practitioners of that same politics,” Tanenhaus declared. “They had not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement—the Reagan Revolution—above their civic responsibilities.”

This “autopsy” was embraced with an astonishing enthusiasm by the intellectual class to whom it was addressed. Within a few days of its publication in the New Republic, Tanenhaus had signed a book deal with Random House, where his editor exclaimed to the New York Observer, “The article appeared and I read it and we talked about it, and then we thought, ‘Let’s do this!’” Tanenhaus expanded his argument into a 160-page book that was published in September 2009 to near-universal praise from reviewers. Most of the praise came from authors or aspiring authors who, one suspects, knew better than to say a discouraging word about the book review editor of the New York Times. The careerist instincts of the literati aside, Tanenhaus had cleverly recycled a can’t-miss formula in the publishing industry:Telling the intellectual class exactly what it wants to hear.

And thus encomiums rained down upon Tanenhaus and his wordy analysis of why those lowbrow right-wing cretins were obsolete, doomed to extinction, irrelevant to the future of American politics.

Unfortunately for Tanenhaus’s thesis, someone forgot to tell the voters. Even as his book rolled off the presses at Random House, the Tea Party movement was organizing mass opposition to the Obama agenda. In September 2009, hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers descended on the nation’s capital for the biggest political rally in recent memory. Two months later, the GOP captured the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey and, in January 2010, Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown was elected to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. The conservative resurgence that contradicted the Tanenhaus “autopsy” was not limited to mere partisan victories for Republicans, but was reflected also in such intramural affairs as the GOP primary fight for a Senate seat in Florida. When a timid party establishment prematurely endorsed moderate governor Charlie Crist as the “safe” choice—with statewide name recognition and demonstrable fund-raising prowess—conservatives revolted, rallied behind a charismatic young challenger named Marco Rubio, and eventually drove Crist entirely out of the Republican Party. (Jim Greer, the Florida state GOP Chairman who had backed Crist, was subsequently indicted on corruption charges, and Greer’s lawyers made headlines by alleging that Crist was a closeted homosexual who had paid hush money to cover up his furtive affairs.) Rubio rode the conservative wave to victory in the November 2010 midterm election, when Republicans gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives, delivering to the new Speaker, John Boehner, a GOP majority even larger than Gingrich had enjoyed after the historic 1994 election. This was the largest congressional majority the Republican Party had held in more than 60 years, and nearly all of the newly elected GOP members were outspokenly conservative.

Insofar as election results can refute an intellectual theory, then, the Tanenhaus “autopsy” was utterly discredited. Conservatism was alive and well and raising hell all across the fruited plain. In the three years that have elapsed since his 2009 book was feted as the obituary of a movement, the conservative cause has been rejuvenated. It now approaches autumn 2012 with a fair hope of unseating the president whose inauguration inspired Tanenhaus to proclaim the “death” of the movement. Mitt Romney had to fight a long primary campaign against more conservative opponents in order to win the Republican nomination, a battle that some feared would damage the GOP’s chances of beating Obama. By late summer, however, the Tea Party activists who opposed Romney in the primaries had begun to rally to his support. When the president made a July appearance in Fairfax County, Virginia—a key battleground for the fall campaign—he was greeted by hundreds of conservative protesters, many of them waving the yellow Gadsden Flag whose defiant “Don’t Tread on Me” motto has become a rallying cry for the Tea Party. Contrary to the Tanenhaus thesis that such “revanchist” conservatism is impractical and thus a detriment to political success, the Tea Partiers to whom I spoke at that Virginia protest struck me as entirely pragmatic in their outlook: They aim first to defeat Obama, then hold Republicans to their promises of repealing his liberal agenda, most especially including the socialized health care monstrosity known as Obamacare.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER THAT TRIP to Virginia, I picked up a recently published book, The Death of Liberalism, written by a fellow named R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. It is Tyrrell’s thesis that the Obama presidency, far from signaling the death of conservatism, has actually demonstrated the reverse: Liberalism is dead, and Obama is its pallbearer.

Whether this November will bring the final interment of liberalism’s corpse, or whether it will somehow manage to continue shuffling along in zombie fashion, remains to be seen. Yet in Tyrrell’s book I saw a passing reference to Sam Tanenhaus, whose mistaken “intellectual autopsy” of conservatism once garnered effusive praise, and wondered: Whatever became of Sam?

A quick search of the online archives at the New York Times confirmed my suspicions that he had lapsed into a mysterious silence. While his byline had appeared seven times in 2011—nearly always bashing the conservatives whose “death” he had pronounced two years earlier—Tanenhaus hadn’t written anything for the Times in 2012 since a January 15 article in which he pretended to discern evidence of fading Tea Party influence amid the early Republican primary results. His most recent byline was not in the Times, nor in the New Republic—which last published Tanenhaus in December 2011—but instead in Newsweek, the bankrupt magazine that was taken over by Tina Brown and which reportedly lost $20 million during her first year as its editor. The June 26 issue of Newsweek included a Tanenhaus article about British novelist Martin Amis, which offered a chance to take a jab at the conservatism that refuses to die: “Today Amis marvels, like so many others, at how far the right has moved. In 2012 Ronald Reagan seems ‘a wild liberal,’ he says.” After that, however, Tanenhaus seemed to disappear entirely.

The most likely explanation for Tanenhaus’s vanishing act is embarrassment at seeing his fame turn so suddenly to infamy, as the conservatism he wishfully pronounced dead has proven so difficult to kill. One imagines him nowadays as a sort of misanthropic recluse, either stumbling around his apartment in a daze or curled up in a fetal position on his sofa, muttering imprecations against those damned voters who refused to accept his “autopsy” as conclusive. When last I checked, The Death of Conservatism could be purchased for one cent from Amazon.com, and the sales ranking for Tanenhaus’s formerly acclaimed volume was 585,392—not even among the top half-million most popular books.

Entire months now pass without any evidence that Sam Tanenhaus is still among the living. Few people notice and still fewer care. His political irrelevance and obscurity are complete, and inarguably well deserved. And in The Death of Liberalism, Tyrrell provides the obituary for Tanenhaus’s “autopsy.”

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.